Mid-January, and it’s Davos time again – the annual pilgrimage of business leaders and heads of state to the summit at the summit of Europe. Davos, at 5000 ft in the Swiss Alps, is the highest town on the continent, and is the venue for the World Economic Forum jamboree, where big ideas are discussed by day, and big parties held at night. Davos is the playground of the kind of ‘citizens of nowhere’ so derided in recent political conversations, and embodied in ‘Davos man’, the jetsetting, be-suited thought leader, to be found at the top of corporations, tech start-ups – and even governments.
Given recent political trends, it is perhaps not surprising that Davos is out to present its more caring and open-minded side to the world. Around a third of attendees, after all, come from civil society organisations and academe. This makes it all the more surprising that efforts to create a more gender-equal pool of participants has so far resulted in women forming less than a quarter of delegates. No wonder this progress was described as ‘glacial’ in the Guardian, although rumour has it that the side events ‘for wives’ of years gone by, have been shelved ….
Meanwhile, in the world of wider inequalities, WEF is keen to show that the crowd invited is younger than before, with millennials on board, and that supporters of populist parties in Europe, and of Donald Trump himself, will be there. But since these types include at least one enormously rich man who is already a Davos regular, this may do little to assuage doubters who see it as an elitist talking shop. As Bloomberg note, this year’s overarching theme, ‘Responsive and Responsible leadership’, suggests that Davos man (and the minority of women) may have had cause to think that they themselves could be part of the problem. There’s a lot of soul-searching about the inequities of globalisation going on in the programme. With Oxfam unveiling its revamped index of inequality showing that this year 8 – yes just 8 – billionaires now have wealth equivalent to that owned by the lower half – yes half – of the world’s population, it’s no wonder. Oxfam Britain’s Chief Executive said that this meant that those in control of half the world’s wealth could now squeeze into a golf buggy – it’s a wonder he didn’t say ski lift, but that may have been considered a little too close to the bone.
Over in Fortune magazine I’m told that the ‘circular economy’ is now more than just ‘Davos-speak’. The ‘circular economy’ refers to processes whereby manufactured goods can be recycled or reused in whole or in part, so as to avoid ending up in landfill, with all the accompanying negative environmental and climate implications. Every year at Davos a series of awards are handed out for the best initiatives in circular economy innovation. It occurred to me that this scheme should now be extended to – but inverted – for politics. After years of alleged groupthink, and handing out colour-coded badges to show which ever-decreasing circle of the elite its participants belong to, Davos could take the bull by the horns. The Forum could give out prizes for the best echo chamber-busting innovations to emerge each year – we all seem to have had enough of circular politics.